Incarceration carries with it a tremendous stigma. Because young children identify with their parents, they are likely to internalize this stigma, associating themselves with the labels placed on their parents or blaming themselves for their parents’ absence. As they grow older, many report feeling blamed or stigmatized by others—neighbors, peers, teachers and other authority figures, even family members—because of their parents’ situation. Some try to keep a parent’s incarceration secret. Many describe the shame and stigma they have experienced as the heaviest burden they carry, lasting long after a parent is released or a child grows up.
“It’s hard to find a sense of value if everybody tells you you’re not worth anything.”
Early incarceration—starting with juvenile hall—marked Rachel’s mother’s life. When Rachel was two years old, her mother left her with her great-grandmother. At the time of this interview, Rachel was 21 and working as a waitress. In recent years, she and her mother have reconnected.
When I was around six, my mother got locked up. I was already living with my great-grandmother. I really missed my mom a lot of the time. If she wasn't locked up, she was gone doing something else.
When I was 11, I got taken away from my great-grandmother because I was deemed incorrigible and her home was deemed neglectful. After that, I was in a lot of placements. I can count ten on my hands, then some of them just blur.
1 in 10 children of prisoners will be incarcerated before reaching the age of 18.
In juvenile hall, a psychologist evaluated me and said I was nuts, basically. She said I was sociopathic. I was all types of crazy. It stuck. It’s hard to find a sense of value if everybody tells you you’re not worth anything. If you don’t feel like you're worth it, you're never gonna do for yourself.
My mother was sent to juvenile hall when she was a teenager. She blames that for why she started using drugs, because she met this girl that got her on drugs.
My mom needed someone who cared. Someone to show her how to go to school and invest in life. Someone to take her camping, biking, to the water. She needed someone to get her out of her environment.
That’s what made a difference for me. After I was placed in foster care, I ran away a lot, and in my runnings I would hitch-hike to different cities and states. Instead of letting the community make me feel like I was trapped, I completely defied it.
Even in juvenile hall, I was very optimistic. I had people that brought me books, and I’d live in my books until I could get away. I’d read about heroines that were kept in towers. I read about women who survived obstacles, and reading about survivors made me feel like one. If they could leave slavery and defy Rome, I could do it.
No matter what your mom does, she’s still a person. After a while, you realize that people screw up. You realize that your mom’s not the only screw-up. You either hold it against her and have this big old knot in your stomach, or you let it go. It feels so much better to let it go.
I was able to do that when I realized that I was probably going to go a lot farther than my mom ever went. And that I was going to take my mom with me—not physically, but in my heart. That one day I’d be able to show her something beautiful. I’m going to show my mom the door.
RIGHTS TO REALITIES
Create opportunities for children of incarcerated parents to communicate with and support each other.
The shame young people experience when a parent is incarcerated is enhanced when they believe they are alone in their experience. The company of other children whose parents are in jail or prison—whether in support groups, recreation programs or summer camps—can allow young people to unburden themselves of a painful secret, learn that they are not to blame for their family’s troubles, and perceive themselves as having potential.
Create a truth fit to tell.
“If I were the one placing a child,” says Rochelle, 25, who spent her early years with a drug-addicted mother before entering foster care, “I’d say, 'Your mom is away in a place where she’s going to try to get some help. For now, you’ll be placed with family members, or if not, in a foster home. And I’m going to be there for you and with you.” If this were the truth, it would be easier to tell. If arrest meant acknowledging a problem and was followed by an attempt to solve it; if children knew they would be reunited with their parent as soon as possible and well cared for in the interim; if those who claimed custody of the parent also offered support and solace to the child, then the criminal justice system might not be so cloaked in shame and stigma that children felt compelled to hide their parents’ involvement in it, and view themselves as tainted as a result.